Church of Scotland General Assembly: Kirk's first hybrid gathering in Edinburgh

The Church of Scotland’s first hybrid General Assembly opens today note-0 in Edinburgh with an agenda which includes allowing ministers to marry same-sex couples, a call for a ban on conversion therapy and approving a Declaration of Friendship with the Catholic Church in Scotland.

Around 400 commissioners from across Scotland and beyond will gather in the Assembly Hall on The Mound while another 200 will take part online.

But much of the usual pageantry associated with the opening will be missing this year because Lord Hodge, the Lord High Commissioner, the Queen’s representative at the Assembly, is not going to be attending in person for health reasons. There will be no procession through the courtyard, no trumpet players, and the First Minister, who is usually there as a guest of the Lord High Commissioner, will not be in attendance.

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Lord Hodge, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, is due to address the Assembly remotely. During the week, he hopes to be able to make the customary visits to projects associated with the Church to show his support and offer encouragement. And he also hopes to appear in the Assembly Hall in person for the closing session on Thursday to address commissioners.

The first business today will see outgoing Moderator, former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy First Minister Lord Wallace of Tankerness, hand over to his successor, the Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, minister of St Margaret's Community Church in Dunfermline for the past 15 years.

Dr Greenshields said he aimed to represent the Church in a way that was “positive, instructive and hopeful”. He said: "There are a great many challenges facing our society today including poverty, mental health, social isolation, addiction and climate change and the Church is active in supporting those in genuine need. Ultimately the greatest need in our society is the spiritual vacuum that exists in the lives of so many."

Last year’s Assembly backed a change in Church law to allow ministers and deacons to apply to become authorised celebrants to conduct same-sex marriages, but the proposal had to win support from a majority of presbyteries before being brought back to this year’s Assembly for final approval. The presbyteries voted 29 in favour and 12 against, so the Assembly will be asked on Monday to agree to the change. An assurance has been given that no-one who does not wish to will be required to solemnise same-sex marriages or be involved in such ceremonies.

Monday’s business also includes approving a Declaration of Friendship with the Catholic Church in Scotland, which has already been approved by the Scottish Catholics’ Bishops Conference. It recognises the “hurt and the harm that our forebears did to each other” and while acknowledging there are issues that still divide the two churches, “we reaffirm that what we hold in common is often greater than what divides us”.

Outgoing Moderator Lord Wallace greets his successor, the Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, at the Assembly Hall.

A wide variety of social and political questions will get an airing at the Assembly on Tuesday, including a proposal from the Church’s Faith Impact Forum to urge the Scottish Government to ban conversion therapy, which attempts to change people’s sexual orientation or gender. The war in Ukraine is also expected to be discussed, as well as support for asylum seekers and refugees and progress on work towards a Net Zero Church by 2030.

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